Floyd County legislators say their list of priorities include working to ensure the completion of two road projects and the re-opening of the prison in Wheelwright when they return to Frankfort this month for the 2020 Kentucky General Assembly.
The biggest goal of legislators the 2020 session is passing a budget that will move the state forward for the next two years, and legislators will also be working to pass legislation that will benefit their home districts.
Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty, D-Martin, and Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, said they met with Gov. Andy Beshear and other state officials about their priorities and plan to advocate for the completion of the 680 Connector, the Mountain Parkway through Prestonsburg and the prison in Wheelwright, as well other things that would benefit Eastern Kentucky when they return to Frankfort.
They both reported that Beshear was both receptive and positive when they emphasized these two roads and the prison among their list of priorities for the region.
“As for my priorities in Floyd County, I have been very vocal about the funding and completion of the 680 Connector between Minnie and Harold, the successful opening of the Southeast State Correctional Complex and boosting the priority of the Mountain Parkway Expansion through Prestonsburg on the road plan,” Laferty said. “As this is a long session during which work will be done on the road plan and the budget, as a priority, I plan to only amplify my advocacy for these projects, among others.”
She reported that Transportation Cabinet officials toured the approximate three-mile stretch that is not complete on the 680 Connector between Minnie and Harold recently and said she met with officials about the Mountain Parkway project as well.
State officials confirmed last year that there was a push to move the Mountain Parkway from its planned connection to U.S. 23 in Prestonsburg to Paintsville, and Laferty and Turner have both voiced opposition to that move. They have both also been vocal about the need to finish the 680 Connector, as have Floyd County officials who say the completion of that road would boost economic development in the region.
“While still a long-term, but foreseeable goal, it’s time to push for investments in roadways comparable to other industry rich areas which connect Eastern Kentucky as a region,” Laferty said.
With a new Democratic governor at the helm, Turner said, he believes state officials are more inclined now to finish the Mountain Parkway project through Prestonsburg, as it was originally planned.
He said he also wants to put the Ky. 680 Connector project back in the budget. He also talked about the need for the completion of a major road project that lost funding in Harlan County, one of the counties he serves as senator.
“I would love to put the 680 project back in the budget,” he said. “We had it in 2016 and our former governor took it out of the budget. We had it in there, ready to go and he took it out, so hopefully we can get it back in. Money is tight, but Ashley and I have talked. We met with the governor and told him that was one of our priorities. Another priority that we have, we want to make sure that the prison at Wheelwright, that the lease is honored, and we had discussions with the governor about that and we’re trying to make sure that is followed through with.”
In October, state officials announced that the state would lease the former prison in Wheelwright and house state prisoners there. They reported it would create 200 jobs in Floyd County.
Former Gov. Matt Bevin signed a 10-year, $41 million lease with CoreCivic, the company that owns the property for the prison in Wheelwright on his last day in office. County officials expressed concern, however, that the lease may not be finalized under Beshear, a vocal opponent of the private prison industry.
Laferty said a committee hearing will be held in January regarding the state’s prison population.
“Currently, the lease agreement to re-open this facility, which does first require mandatory upgrades, has been signed, and Interim Commissioner Kenney, at the Department of Corrections, has advised that she plans to testify during January of this session as to the need for qualified beds to house our inmates in the commonwealth,” Laferty said. “While I hope it is now unnecessary, still, I am committed to filing anything required to keep this ball rolling in the right direction. Not only will the re-opening of this prison create much needed job opportunities for our community, it will duly serve as a solution to our overcrowded jails across the Commonwealth.”
In terms of other priorities this session, Turner pre-filed a bill that would require state agencies to ensure coal companies are bonded so that they have funds available to pay employees if they go bankrupt. Turner said he filed the bill in response to the Blackjewel bankruptcy, during which coal miners were not paid.
“This bill should shore that up and take care of the glitch that was there. It will make sure that there’s oversight from more than one place, to make sure that the people will get paid,” Turner said.
He believes the bill has a chance of making it through the legislative process.
“I feel like we can get that bill passed,” he said. “It’s a good bill. There shouldn’t be any partisanship in it. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”
He’ll also be pressing to improve other things that impact Eastern Kentucky this session.
“I’m all about making sure we take care of education and I hope that we’ll come up with a way to fund the pension, to take care of the state employees and the teachers,” Turner said. “The pension is another big issue. We’ve been able to fund it the last couple of years, so hopefully we can keep continuing to do that.”
Laferty said she will support and seek support for several measures, including a bill filed by Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, to eliminate a requirement that doctors who perform evaluations for black lung disease be “B” readers. She said she will also support a bill to give coal miners more time to file black lung claims and a House bill, similar to Turner’s, that would protect employees at coal mines that go bankrupt. She also has other legislative matters on her radar for this session.
“During this session, alongside other Eastern Kentucky legislators, I plan to be supportive of some of the promises that were made to us, such as the coal severance money to be returned to the coal producing counties, which will include Floyd and Pike counties, and I also plan to be active in supporting the Kentucky Mountain Regional Recreational Authority, which, of course, is designed to promote outdoor recreation and mountain tourism,” Laferty said. “Like other states with similar landscapes to ours, I’d like to see Eastern Kentucky take advantage and benefit from the advancement of scenic and motorized trail systems.”
She said she is considering bills that would support teachers by increasing the taxable pension exclusion from $31,000 to $41,000 and to support volunteer firefighters by allowing them to claim tax benefits for service-related costs.
“These fellas put in a lot of hours and take away from their families and personal priorities, and a lot of times, they spend their own money to help keep these volunteer fire departments afloat, so I’ve been looking into that,” she said.
Laferty also reported that she’s met with small business owners in Floyd County to discuss the need to find a way to make it more affordable for them to provide health insurance to employees. She said she will also support measures to reinstate the Kentucky Labor Board, which was dismantled recently.
Turner said he hopes to see more legislators working across the aisle during this session.
“We’ll be working with a new governor. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of bipartisanship in this session, and maybe we can get some things done,” Turner said. “Gov. Beshear has indicated that that’s what he’d like to see, so hopefully we can get more people working together down there. I’ve always tried to work with the majority party to try to do what we can for the district and I’m going to continue to try to work with them as best I can.”
Turner commended people who responded to surveys he sent out seeking input about the upcoming session. He also praised the working relationship he has with Laferty, reporting they are working together on Eastern Kentucky priorities.
“I’m just hoping that Gov. Beshear — and I think he will — will work with everybody in the legislature to try to make sure that we move Kentucky forward, and especially Eastern Kentucky,” Turner said. “I do know that Ashley and I, we’ve talked quite a bit since she’s been elected, and we’re trying to work together as much as we can to help Floyd County and Eastern Kentucky.”
The legislative session begins Jan. 7 and will adjourn on April 15. Lawmakers will have until March 2 in the House and March 3 in the Senate to introduce bills for consideration. The veto recess will be held April 2-13 and legislators will return to Frankfort on April 14-15 for the final two days of the session.
Turner may be reached at, (502) 564-2470 or via email at, JohnnyRay.Turner@lrc.ky.gov.
Laferty may be reached at, (502) 564-8100, or via email at, Ashley.TackettLaferty@lrc.ky.gov.